Sterling silver hallmarks

Silver-Plated vs Sterling Silver: Spotting the Differences

When it comes to purchasing jewellery or silverware, you may have come across the terms “silver-plated” and “sterling silver.” While they may sound similar, there are significant differences between the two, and understanding these differences can help you better understand the value of your metal and make informed decisions when buying or selling silver items. 

The main difference between silver-plated and sterling silver is the composition of the metals. Sterling silver is made up of 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% other metals, usually copper. On the other hand, silver-plated items are made of a base metal, such as copper or nickel, with only the outside coated in a thin layer of silver. At Guardian Gold, we do not sell or purchase silver-plated items. While these items can still be beautiful and affordable alternatives to sterling silver, sterling silver is of higher quality and value than silver-plated items.  

Understanding Silver and Its Properties

Silver is a precious metal that has been used for centuries to make jewellery, coins, and other decorative items. It is a soft and malleable metal that is known for its luster and beauty. In its purest form silver, similiar to gold, is too soft to be used in jewellery, so it is often alloyed with other metals to increase its durability.

Silver in Coins

Silver has played a significant role in the value and appeal of coins throughout time. Many historically significant and collectible coins, such as silver dollars or commemorative coins, contain a notable amount of pure silver. The silver content of coins can vary depending on their country of origin, denomination, and historical period. For example, Canadian coins have gone through various changes in their silver content over the years. From 1920 to 1966, many Canadian silver coins contained 80% silver and 20% copper. In 1968 the silver content in Canadian coins was reduced to 50%, and from 1969 and onwards standard circulating Canadian coins no longer contained any silver content, instead consisting of 99% nickel.

The specific silver content of a coin can impact its collectability, numismatic value, and precious metal investment potential. There are some privately minted or commemorative coins that may be silver-plated, however, these coins are often issued as collectibles or novelty items and are not intended for regular circulation. When it comes to collectible or numismatic coins, they are primarily made of high-quality silver, such as fine silver or sterling silver, as these are preferred by collectors and investors due to their inherent value and desirability.

Silver in Jewellery

When it comes to silver jewellery, there are two main types: silver-plated and sterling silver. One of the key differences between silver-plated and sterling silver is the amount of pure silver in each. Sterling silver contains a higher percentage of pure silver, which makes it more valuable and durable than silver-plated jewellery. Additionally, sterling silver is less likely to tarnish than silver-plated jewellery, which requires more delicate cleaning methods and may require re-plating over time to restore its original appearance. When shopping for silver jewellery, it’s important to understand the differences between silver-plated and sterling silver. Methods to differentiate between the two will be discussed further on in the article.

Silver in Household Items

Silver has been a popular choice for dishware and tableware for centuries due to its elegant appearance and unique properties. Silverware, often made of sterling silver or silver-plated alloys, provides practical benefits alongside aesthetic ones. Silver is a naturally antibacterial substance, inhibiting the growth of bacteria on surfaces, making it a hygienic choice for cutlery and serving utensils. Silver’s high thermal conductivity allows it to quickly transfer heat, keeping food warmer for longer, making it ideal for dishware and tableware.

Sterling silver is a popular choice for high-quality tableware, often stamped with a “925” mark to indicate its silver content. Silver-plated goods, however, commonly undergo a process called electroplating to give them a silver appearance, known as electroplated silver. Electroplating silver is a process where a thin layer of silver is bonded to a base metal through electrochemical deposition. Electroplated silver items can be identified by markings like “EPNS” (Electroplated Nickel Silver) or “EP” (Electroplate) and are typically less expensive than solid silver or silver-plated pieces. The process of silver-plating is discussed in greater detail further on in this article.

What is Sterling Silver?

Sterling silver is a popular metal used in jewellery making, flatware, and other decorative items. The term “sterling” originated in medieval England, where the standard for silver purity was established. It is an alloy of 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% copper, and this combination of metals gives sterling silver its unique luster and strength. The 92.5% silver content ensures that sterling silver retains the desirable properties of silver while the addition of copper strengthens the alloy, making it more suitable for practical use in various applications. 

Markings on Sterling Silver

To identify sterling silver, look for the “.925”, “925”, or “Sterling” stamp or marking on the piece. This marking indicates that the item is made of 92.5% pure silver. Another common marking is a maker’s mark, which identifies the specific silversmith or manufacturer responsible for producing the piece. Finally, sterling silver could also be identified by a country’s assay mark, in which the official assay office of a given country applies a unique symbol or mark to indicate the silver’s quality and origin. For example, the British hallmark system includes the mark of the lion passant, indicating sterling silver, along with additional marks denoting the assay office and date of hallmarking. 

Durability of Sterling Silver

Compared to silver-plated or pure silver, sterling silver is much more durable. The addition of copper enhances the strength and durability of the silver, making it more resistant to dents, scratches, and deformation compared to pure silver. While it is not as hard as some other metals like stainless steel, sterling silver exhibits good wear resistance, making it suitable for daily wear in jewellery or everyday use for tableware as it withstands the rigors of regular use without significant damage. 

Sterling silver is a durable metal, but it can tarnish over time. Tarnish is a natural process that occurs over time from exposure to air and certain substances, such as sulfur, that react with and oxidize the metal. The copper content in sterling silver helps inhibit tarnishing to some extent, however, tarnish can easily be removed with a silver polishing cloth or solution to keep it looking its best. Polishing the silver periodically with a soft cloth or using specialized silver cleaning products can help remove tarnish and restore its shine. Proper storage in anti-tarnish pouches or containers can also protect sterling silver from scratches and tarnish when not in use. 

Sterling silver jewellery, flatware, and decorative items can retain their beauty and functionality for years, making them suitable for heirloom pieces. With proper care, sterling silver items can last for generations. Here at Guardian Gold, we will happily purchase your silver regardless of tarnish or wear. As a precious metals buyer the only value we attach to the non-pure silver items is there precious metals value, so there is no need to prepare your silver before sale. 

Sterling Silver Jewellery

Sterling silver is a popular choice for jewellery making because of its durability and beauty. It is a versatile metal that can be used to create a variety of jewellery styles, from classic to modern. Sterling silver jewellery has a lustrous and elegant appearance that can rival the beauty of pure silver. Its higher silver content contributes to a more substantial weight and a genuine silver look. Silver-plated jewellery may have a similar appearance initially, but the thin silver coating may wear off over time, exposing the base metal beneath. 

Sterling silver is generally hypoallergenic and well-tolerated by most individuals, making it a suitable choice for those with sensitive skin or metal allergies. Silver-plated jewellery, on the other hand, may expose wearers to the underlying metal beneath the silver coating, which could potentially cause skin irritation or allergic reactions. Sterling silver jewellery also holds inherent value due to its silver content. Over time, the value of silver tends to appreciate, making sterling silver jewellery a potential investment. Silver-plated jewellery, lacking a significant silver content, does not carry the same investment potential. While silver-plated jewellery may have a lower upfront cost, it does not possess the same durability, value, and authenticity as sterling silver. 

What is Silver-Plated?

If you’re new to the world of jewellery, you may have heard the term “silver-plated” before but might not know what it means. In simple terms, silver-plated means that a layer of silver has been coated onto a base metal, such as brass or zinc. The base metal is often chosen for its durability and affordability. 

Process of Silver Plating

The process of silver plating involves coating the base metal with a thin layer of silver. The base metal object, often made of brass, zinc, nickel silver, or other alloys, undergoes thorough cleaning and preparation to ensure a clean and smooth surface. The prepared object then is immersed in an electroplating bath or tank housing an electrolyte solution, typically containing silver salts and other chemicals. An electric current is passed through this solution, releasing the silver ions contained within. When this process occurs, silver ions become attracted to the base metal object and deposit onto its surface, forming a thin layer of silver that adheres to the object. The plating process may involve multiple passes or layers to achieve the desired thickness, and once that is achieved, the object is removed from the electroplating bath. The base object may undergo additional steps such as rinsing, drying, and polishing to enhance the appearance and smoothness of the plated surface. 

It’s important to note that the silver layer in silver-plated items is relatively thin, typically ranging from a few microns to a fraction of a millimeter. This is why silver-plated items may wear down or lose their silver coating over time with regular use and exposure to friction, cleaning, or other external factors. 

Silver Plated Jewellery

Silver-plated jewellery is a popular choice for those who want the look of silver without the higher price tag. It can be a great option for everyday wear, but it’s important to keep in mind that the silver coating may wear off over time, revealing the base metal underneath. Silver-plated jewellery can turn green due to a chemical reaction between the silver, base metal, and the wearer’s skin or exposure to moisture. However, this is not a guarantee and can be prevented by properly caring for the jewellery. When caring for silver-plated jewellery, it’s important to be gentle and avoid using harsh chemicals or abrasive materials that could damage the silver coating. Instead, use a soft cloth to gently polish the jewellery and store it in a dry, cool place to prevent tarnishing.

How to Identify Real Silver

If you’re wondering whether your piece of jewellery or silverware is made of real silver or not, there are a few things you can do to find out. 

Look for Markings or Stamps

One of the easiest ways to identify real silver is by looking for markings or stamps on the item. These markings can include a number, a symbol, or a word that indicates the purity of the silver. For example, “925” indicates that the item is made of sterling silver, which is 92.5% pure silver. Look for these markings in inconspicuous places, such as on the back of a pendant or on the underside of a spoon. 

Check for Hallmarks

As previously mentioned, hallmarks are symbols or stamps that indicate the authenticity of the silver. They are usually found on the underside of the item and can include the maker’s mark, the assay office mark, the year the item was made, national symbols or emblems, and the purity of the silver. Look for these hallmarks with a magnifying glass or jeweller’s loupe as these markings are small and meant to be obscured from view as to not negatively impact aesthetics of the piece.

Conduct an Acid Test

An acid test can help you determine the purity of the silver. They are primarily intended for quick assessments that give a general idea of the silver content, as they provide approximate results rather than precise measurements of silver purity. You can purchase acid testing kits online or at a jewellery supply store, and commonly these kits come with a set of solutions that react differently to different purities of silver. Follow the instructions carefully and use caution if handling these kits, as the acids used can be corrosive. 

Use a Magnet

Real silver is not magnetic, so if you have a magnet handy, you can use it to determine whether your item is made of real silver or not. Hold the magnet up to the item and see if it sticks. If it does, it indicates the presence of ferromagnetic metals, such as iron, steel, or nickel. In this case, the item is not made of pure silver or contains a significant amount of non-silver metals. Sterling silver’s 92.5% purity does not contain enough ferromagnetic metals and as such, does not react to magnets. Some silver-plated items may have a ferromagnetic base metal, causing the magnet to be attracted to the item, therefore this method should only be used to provide a preliminary indication and not used as a definitive test for silver.

Get an Assay Done

The most accurate assessment of silver authenticity and purity is through use of an X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometer. X-ray assaying is often regarded as the best way to determine silver purity because it is highly accurate, can be conducted rapidly, is non-destructive, and provides a comprehensive analysis and report of the elemental composition of material being tested. XRF spectrometers are specialized equipment used by trained individuals in professional settings as expertise are necessary for accurate results. It is worth noting that when it comes to an XRF spectrometer assay of plated silver, initial readings often come back as 99.99%-100% silver.

However, due to the intrinsic durability of pure silver this is very rarely the case that an item is made of ~100% silver, the machines read the surface of the plated item and provide a reading of the very surface of the item. At Guardian Gold, we provide free assays of your metals with our XRF spectrometers so you can be confident about what your precious metals are worth before you sell them!

Comparing Sterling Silver and Silver-Plated

When it comes to choosing between sterling silver and silver-plated, there are several factors to consider. Here are some of the key differences between the two:

Tarnishing and Care

One of the most significant differences between sterling silver and silver-plated is how they react to tarnishing. Sterling silver is more resistant to tarnishing, although it can still happen over time. However, tarnish can be easily cleaned out of sterling silver using a silver polishing cloth or a gentle cleaning solution. On the other hand, tarnish can be more challenging to remove from silver-plated jewellery, and it can wear away the silver coating if not cleaned carefully. To keep your silver-plated jewellery looking its best, it’s important to store it safely, clean it regularly with a soft cloth, and avoid exposing it to harsh chemicals.

Sterling silver is also a harder metal than silver-plated, which means it is less likely to scratch or dent overtime. This makes it a better choice for jewellery that will be worn frequently and subjected to regular wear and tear. Silver-plated items may need to be replaced more often due to damage.

Price and Value

Sterling silver is generally more expensive than silver-plated items due to its higher silver content and durability, however, this also makes it a better long-term investment since it’s less likely to tarnish or wear away over time. Silver-plated jewellery or household items, while more affordable upfront, may need to be replaced more frequently due to tarnishing or wear. As an investment option, sterling silver typically has a higher resale value than silver-plated items. This is because sterling silver is a precious metal unlike silver-plated items, however, resale value can also depend on the specific item and its condition.

Weight and Appearance

Sterling silver is a denser metal than silver-plated, which means it has a more substantial weight and feel. This can make it feel more luxurious and valuable. Additionally, sterling silver has a bright, shiny appearance that can be easily polished to restore its luster. Silver-plated jewellery may have a similar appearance initially, but it can appear duller over time as the silver coating wears away.

Additional Considerations

When deciding between silver-plated and sterling silver, there are a few other factors to consider beyond just the difference in composition.

Environmental Impact

Silver mining can have a significant impact on the environment, so choosing a metal that is more sustainable may be a priority for certain individuals. While both sterling silver and silver-plated items contain silver, sterling silver is typically considered more environmentally friendly than silver-plated because it is a higher quality metal that can be recycled and repurposed into new silver items more easily.

Antique Silver

If you’re interested in antique silver, it’s important to note that many antique items are made from sterling silver rather than silver-plated metal. Certain periods or regions favored sterling silver for their high-end or luxury silverware, while silver-plated items were more commonly used for everyday or less expensive pieces. The process of silver-plating has also become more common due to modernization of prevailing techniques, hence why it is rarer to see genuine antique pieces made from silver-plated materials.

Three brightly polished silver teapots arranged together

Labeling

When purchasing silver items, it’s important to pay attention to labeling. Sterling silver items will typically be labeled as such, while silver-plated items may be labeled as “silver-toned” or “silver-plated.” Be wary of items that are labeled simply as “silver,” as this can be misleading. As previously mentioned, always look for markings or hallmarks to identify and differentiate between sterling silver and silver-plated metals.

Cheaper Alternatives

While sterling silver is a higher quality metal than silver-plated items, both are typically more expensive than alternatives made from other alloys. If you’re looking for a cheaper alternative, stainless steel can be a good option. While it may not have the same value as precious metals, it is durable and can be made to look similar to silver.

Summary

Being knowledgeable about the distinctions between sterling silver and silver-plated is essential for making informed decisions when purchasing silver items. Sterling silver, with its 92.5% pure silver composition, offers superior quality, durability, and resistance to tarnishing. It holds inherent value, making it a popular choice for jewellery and silverware. On the other hand, silver-plated items comprised of a thin layer of silver coating over a base metal provide an affordable alternative but are less durable and may require re-plating over time. 

To identify sterling silver, carefully examine markings, hallmarks, and conduct at-home tests such as magnet or acid tests. For an accurate and comprehensive assessment of your metal, seek a free professional assay from Guardian Gold using our XRF spectrometers to confirm the authenticity and purity of your silver items. 

Understanding these factors empowers you to make well-informed choices based on quality, value, durability, and your personal preferences. Whether you’re purchasing silver jewellery, silverware, or other silver items, the knowledge gained from distinguishing between sterling silver and silver-plated will guide you in finding the perfect piece for your needs. 

If you would like to learn more about precious metals: selling, buying, markets, how to value, history, investment, and more – check out the posts on our blog. If you have any questions pertaining to this post, or wish to talk with one of our experts, feel free to Contact Us.

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